Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Classroom realities: What is happening in Indian education after two decades of reforms

The previous two decades have seen a massive push by the government to promote literacy with higher spending and new schemes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Some of these have paid dividends, according to latest data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). Indian households are not only willing to spend more on education, a near-universalization of primary schooling has helped reduce illiteracy significantly. But challenges remain. There is still a persistent gender gap (although reduced) in access to education. Several states in the north and centre of the country still lag the rest. Here are eight trends in India’s education sector two decades after liberalization.

Illiteracy rates are down

For the population aged 15 years and above, illiteracy rate has reduced sharply to 29.5%. Illiteracy in rural and urban areas is 35.9% and 16%, respectively. The reduction is more in rural areas, but they had a higher illiteracy rate to begin with. With the decline in illiteracy, there has been an improvement in all education levels. Chart 1 shows the improvement in education levels for population aged 15 years and above. However, there exists a large gap between primary and higher education attainment levels.

Education goes private

Primary and higher education sectors saw the biggest increase in the number of students attending private (aided and unaided) institutions during this period. There are multiple reasons for this trend. Parents are increasingly aspiring to provide better facilities to their children. Experts have argued that parents complement their children’s education by some kind of private input. Private tuitions are higher in states where private education enrolment is lower. To be sure, data also suggests that higher enrolment in private schools might not lead to discernibly higher performance levels but that has not killed the perception that private institutions are better than government schools. Disaggregated studies also show that private schools are filling in the demand-supply gap due to lack of government schools.

Increased spending on education

Parents are willing to spend more. Average spending on primary education in 2014 was 9.2 times more than 1995-96 levels. For higher education, the increase was about 5.2 times. Overall household expenditure hasn’t increased this much. Calculations using NSSO data on Monthly Per Capita Expenditure (MPCE) show that average expenditure increased by around 4.7 and 5.2 times for rural and urban areas, respectively, during this period.

One notable feature of spending on education is that course fee constitutes roughly half of the overall spending accounting for 40.6% and 51.3% of the total spending in rural and urban areas, respectively.

Access to education is more egalitarian

It is expected that poverty prevents people from availing of education. NSSO data shows this to be true. The proportion of people who have never enrolled for education reduces as their average expenditure increases. However, this phenomenon reduced during this period. The largest improvement was seen in the lowest consumption quintile in rural areas. This shows that access to education is getting more egalitarian in nature.

Gender gap is reducing…

Women lag behind men at each education level in India. According to the 2014 NSSO survey, more women were illiterate than men, the gap being 18 percentage points. The gap is seen across education levels. The good news is this gap has reduced till secondary education. Although it has increased beyond secondary level, one can expect the gap to reduce for latter categories with time.

…as more women enrol

The gender gap has reduced because more girls are enrolling. A yardstick to measure this is net attendance ratio (NAR). For each education class group, NAR is the ratio of the number of persons in the official age-group attending a particular class-group to the total number of persons in the age-group. Basically, if there are 100 people in the 15-18 year group and 73 are attending high school (the class appropriate to this age), 22 are attending primary school and 5 not going anywhere, the net attendance ratio would be 73%. In all but two categories, there has been a higher improvement in NAR for women.

Fewer drop-outs in the North east

Research shows that for education to positively affect economic growth, it is necessary to move from improving primary education to improving secondary and tertiary education. One of the biggest reasons for the gap between educational improvements at primary and higher levels is drop-outs. Around 50% men and 60% women of those who drop out in the 5-19 age-group cited reasons of financial constraints or engagement in domestic or economic activities in 2014. Among women, 13.9% drop-out was due to marriage. There are no males in this category. India’s north-eastern states might hold a lesson for the rest of the country in overcoming this challenge as they have reduced drop-outs the most during this period.

Hindi heartland still lags

One of the biggest problems of Indian growth story has been its inter-regional inequalities. That is true for the education sector as well. While some states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been able to improve their economic output, particularly agricultural growth rates, they continue to lag in education. They have a higher proportion of people who have never enrolled for education. Given their large weight in the country’s population, they are dragging the all-India average as well.

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